Volume 8, Issue 5: Non Est
No one else in Christendom shares Rome's peculiar view of infallibility. Even if we set aside the issue of papal infallibility, neither Eastern Orthodoxy nor Anglicanism will side with Rome on the general issues. Their notions are much more vaguely spread through history, but conservative Roman Catholicism wants to point to definitive instances of infallibility. And this definitive infallibility comes to play handily in criticisms of Protestants. As the Catholic Encyclopedia explains,
the history of the early heresies and of the Protestant sects proves clearly . . . that nothing less than an infallible public authority capable of acting decisively whenever the need should arise and pronouncing an absolutely final and irreformable judgment is really efficient for this purpose. Practically speaking the only alternative to infallibility is private judgment.
When Rome speaks of ecclesiastical infallibility it isn't claiming divine inspiration or new revelation; and it doesn't claim the persons or councils teaching infallibly are sinless. It is claiming that a special divine assistance preserves the Church from error in its definitive dogmatic teaching regarding faith and morals.
For whatever reason, Rome usually seeks to justify its claims from Scripture, and the issue of the infallibility of the Church is no different. Among others, the three weightiest biblical passages cited by Rome are Matthew 28:18-20 ("Go teach . . . I am with you always"), Matthew 16:18 ("the gates of Hades shall not prevail"), and relevant verses in John 14 and 16 ("when the Spirit of truth is come, he will teach you all truth"). These three verses can really be lumped together. The Catholic Encyclopedia provides such a general argument: "if Christ really intended His promise to be with His Church to be taken seriously, and if He was truly the Son of God, omniscient and omnipotent, . . . then the Church is entitled to claim infallible doctrinal authority."
Many former Protestants have struggled with the historical appeal of this line of thought, and only space limitations force me to omit delving into the strong pull of such claims. Be that as it may, several brief considerations do count against Rome's claims.
First, such passages prove too much for Rome. The promises are quite broad and general ("all truth"), yet Rome insists on excluding many of the Church's pronouncements on science and anything outside of "faith and morals." In fact, their qualifications appear quite ad hoc and convoluted. Not only is infallibility limited to faith and morals, but within that scope, it doesn't apply to all conciliar or papal pronouncements or to the motives or even the arguments used to justify a particular declaration. But the biblical passages above don't stop where Rome wants them to. If such passages proved any infallibility at all, they would instead prove a much broader notion of infallibility, which Rome rejects.
Second, not granting Rome's general reading, the premises Rome tries to construct from the above passages simply can't stretch to the conclusion of infallibility. The arguments are simple non sequiturs. For example, the promise of presence by itself doesn't entail infallibility. God's presence provided direct revelation in the Old Covenant priesthood, yet the Church still turned apostate. Even the promise "he will teach you all truth" doesn't get us to a "living voice that can speak infallibly to every generation." If God is clarifying His truth over time and not in one bundle at the start, then fallible judgments along the way are possible. The road to the great trinitarian and christological creeds was very bumpy. "Teaching the Church all truth" simply doesn't entail infallibility at one point. The Church can be led into all truth over time.
Third, promises of presence and Hades not prevailing can hold true even if institutional unity is broken. In the Old Covenant, we find much more specific promises of continuity than these, and yet God does some very unexpected things institutionally. He specifically promised David that "your throne shall be established forever" (2 Sam. 7:16). Yet what was Daniel, sitting exiled in Babylon, to make of this? On Roman Catholic terms, this promise failed. David's line lost the throne. But we now know that God was doing something greater.
Nonetheless, the promises to the New Covenant Church have fared much better, though they are less specific. Contrary to the anabaptists, the Church did not fall off the face of the earth in the second century. Hades didn't prevail; the Church didn't die and get resurrected at the Reformation. From the beginning and through the medieval period, the Church has progressed on many fronts, especially in doctrinal matters, moving onward and upward, with some severe bumps along the way. But we have never been in Daniel's predicament. Sure the Church is in a particularly bad and confused time now, but a few transitional centuries like ours will count for little in the long run. Roman Catholicism will give up the ghost within the next hundred years, and its rather late and novel mark will appear as a quaint footnote two thousand years from now.
Without definitive ecclesiastical infallibility, Rome doesn't have much of a case against sola Scriptura. If the Church is fallible, then only Scripture can be infallible. But this needn't end in an anarchy of private judgment. Nobody wants that. But infallibility and private judgment aren't the only two options. The Church can be genuinely authoritative, guarding against interpretational anarchy, but yet not need convoluted claims about infallibility. Just ask Athanasius. But that is the topic of another essay.